Early Childhood

N.Y.C. Parents Navigate Pre-K Enrollment Maze

By Christina A. Samuels — June 10, 2014 5 min read
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With the clock running on finding a spot in New York state’s newly expanded push for early education, parents in New York City, in particular, are navigating a complicated system to enroll their children in public preschool programs.

State lawmakers voted in April to devote $1.5 billion to early-childhood education for the next five years. In New York City alone, the aid is expected to amount to about $300 million for the 2014-15 school year.

For parents in the city, one path leads to approximately 20,000 preschool seats managed by the city’s department of education. This year, parents were required to submit applications by late April, and by last week they had learned if their children had gotten into the public preschools of their choice.

A second path leads to about 25,000 preschool slots overseen by organizations throughout the city, also known as community-based early-childhood centers. Those agencies have their own neighborhood-outreach efforts, their own application procedures, and their own admissions deadlines. The process favored savvy, well-informed parents. But with new money from the state, and a groundswell of interest from families who otherwise might not have known about early-childhood offerings, the city is pushing to make sure all parents know that preschool seats are open.

Gap-toothed children smile out from advertisements on taxis, bus shelters, and subway cars. The city is hiring workers to canvass underserved neighborhoods. Parents can send a text message to a special number to find out what preschools are located near them. Plus, Mayor Bill de Blasio is letting parents know that if they didn’t get the placement of their choice, they still have options.

“Whether your child is accepted to a public school program this week or not, there are more options—both at community facilities and at other public schools—to find the right fit,” he said during a June 3 press conference at P.S. 239 in Queens. “There’s no limit in how many places you can apply to, but the important thing is to apply, and apply now.”

Self-Imposed Deadline

New York City is heading toward a self-imposed deadline of June 26 to get an idea of how many children are enrolled in preschool, and where.

“The city is trying to have a better handle on where they have capacity and no children, and where they have an overabundance of children and no capacity,” said Nancy Kolben, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Initiatives, in New York City, and a member of a pre-K working group that Mr. de Blasio formed soon after his election in November.

But even June 26 is a bit of a moving target—the city has until October to submit a final count to the state.

The many moving pieces of the preschool expansion effort demonstrate that getting the money to expand preschool in the city is just the first step in a complicated process.

“It’s a lot to sort through, and I think this is one of those inevitable things that happens with this kind of growth,” Ms. Kolben said. “This is what the [enrollment] system was like in previous years, but the numbers weren’t changing so dramatically.”

The mayor, a Democrat, campaigned on a platform of making preschool universal in New York City, and started working to stir up interest even before the state legislature made its funding decision. The promotional efforts appear to have worked; the city’s education department has reported receiving more than 41,000 applications for the 20,000 preschool seats that the school district manages.

That potentially leaves 20,000 disappointed families, but the community-based early-childhood centers should not be considered an inferior choice, Ms. Kolben said. “The public school application was first, and it led people to think it was best,” she said. Though the community-based centers have their own deadlines, the city has rolled out a common application form for all the centers.

Anxieties Elsewhere

Randi Levine, the director of the Early Childhood Education Project, an initiative of Advocates for Children of New York, said she was pleased with the outreach efforts thus far.

“We’re working with [city officials] to make sure some of the students who could benefit most from the programs know about them,” Ms. Levine said, citing children such as those living in the city’s homeless shelters, Ms. Levine said. City officials have met with shelter managers to explain the program to them, let them know about nearby programs, and given them a list of eligible children housed in the shelter. But Ms. Levine said the city could do more to actually go into the shelters and sign up children.

Elsewhere in the state, school districts still may not be ready to take advantage of the new money, said Lauren J. Tobias, the director of policy for the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, in Albany. That’s because they don’t have the money to pay for the program upfront while waiting for reimbursement from the state.

About $40 million was earmarked for preschool expansion outside of New York City in the 2014-15 school year. On June 2, the state released a request for preschool funding proposals and gave interested parties three days to submit any questions—a tight turnaround, Ms. Tobias said. The request for proposals also came after school districts had completed their budgets for 2014-15.

Advocates worry that if preschool money goes unspent, it may signal to lawmakers that there isn’t as much need as preschool promoters may have thought.

“That’s the biggest concern in how they’ve structured the reimbursement process,” Ms. Tobias said.

But Mary Morris, the assistant superintendent of the 2,400-student Cheektowaga Central School District near Buffalo, said that her district was planning to apply for the $300,000 it needs to expand its current half-day program, which serves 78 children, to a full-day program.

“Some people say, oh, full-day pre-K, that’s too much time for kids to be in school,” she said. “But if you do it right and you look at a whole child and you provide opportunities for social-emotional growth, I can’t imagine that it does not help.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Parents Navigate Prekindergarten Enrollment Maze

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